Although I knew it was coming soon, I was a bit shocked and deeply saddened to hear of my friend, Stephen “Saga Steve” Casai’s passing on at the age of 64 late yesterday afternoon. He had been fighting terminal brain cancer and suffering since last September.
Steve was truly one of the kindest, dedicated, sincere, loyal, diligent, self-less, modest, gentle, joyful, generous, disciplined, peaceful, faithful, humble, service oriented and caring people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Also authentic, gracious, quiet, and unassuming. He served others with excellence and earned the respect from a multitude of people.
These are Christian traits and virtues that are seemingly in very rare commodity these days, and we can learn a lot from looking at Steve’s life of service.
Growing up in the small town of Hillsdale Michigan, I first met Steve as a teenager at the local, former “Dawn” movie theater where he served as a usher for many years.
I would later get to know him better as a student at Hillsdale College, where I attended from 1984 to 1988. Steve worked for the food service there (which was known as SAGA, hence his nickname, which at first would make him boil, but he would later come to accept it) and greeted each student (always well dressed in a suit and tie) with a warm smile, two or three times each day. During the 1980’s “Cold War,” when the food was bad, we would jokingly say that SAGA stood for the “Soviet Attempt to Gag America.”
When we would walk into the cafeteria, we knew that Steve would say, “Hello, Thank you. Enjoy your meal,” or maybe “Have a nice day.” We would often forget our meal tickets, and were amazed at how he had memorized our numbers and names, and would gently remind us to “please bring it next time.” He didn’t own a car (although had a valid driver’s license) and could often been seen walking all over town, an average of four to six miles per day.
Steve had a tireless work ethic: He would wake up at 4:30am each day with prayer, exercise and Bible Study.
He loved the arts, classical music and movies, American history and was very active in the local Right to Life chapter. He was very clever, witty and loved to joke around with those who he knew best. Steve also loved to write about local history and had several articles published in our local newspaper. Steve also was a member of the Ping Pong club at the college and was one of their best players.
I didn’t learn until several years after I graduated that Steve was also a fellow alum, had graduated in 1974, and was a member of the 1973 State Championship Track team. He later graduated from Bethany Lutheran College in Minnesota (1976) and Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary (1980) and after he completed that, came back to Hillsdale in October of 1980 and worked for our Alma Mater for almost 40 years. Here are a couple of photos from that time:
In another interview, Steve said he considered his job there as “a blessing from the Lord,” and never once a burden that he was stuck with. Steve knew that “True friendship is true service,” and what it means to serve and serve well– always with a smile on his face.
So when Steve became sick and was treated at the University of Michigan and later moved to the local long-term care facility in Hillsdale, the tables had turned.
It was then up to us — the students and alums whom Steve had served for four decades — to pour out our kind words, sincere smiles, and earnest prayers upon him in a time when he needed it more than anything else. The outpouring of these was tremendous, and Steve recently shared this beautiful thank you note. (Click the pictures on here to enlarge them)
I love everything he wrote in that letter.
I realize now that Steve almost died not knowing how valued, loved and treasured he was, or that his life of service had such an impact on so many others. What a tragedy that would have been. The little things Steve did in his lifetime mean so much to those of us who knew him now. In our own self-reliance and pride, we often resist help, or love, and maybe it’s when we need it and want it the most.
Genuine humility is so beautiful and attractive, and he exemplified it, as we should more often too.
There are two plaques in his honor which have been placed in the entrance of the cafeteria, and here is a picture of them:
I had the honor of visiting with him several times during his illness, often bringing cards, flowers that others had asked me to bring along. On my most recent one, he was in a wheelchair and I helped him to the cafeteria for our last conversation. During most of our visits, we would talk about many things, including our mutual faith, and one time, I gave him a devotional book that I enjoy called Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence, by Sarah Young. I later learned that Steve enjoyed having this book read to him everyday, and it provided him comfort during one of the most difficult times of his life.
Steve’s life and legacy are a true blessing, and he was a Godly man of great faith with integrity and a beautiful soul who went to his eternal home knowing that he was an inspiration to so many. I now rest in the blessed assurance and promise that he is with our Lord and Savior now, and hope that he greets many of us again in Heaven someday.
He fought the good fight, kept the faith, and finished the race. (2 Timothy 4: 7-8)
The Hillsdale community is like one big extended family. Steve was a steady, consistent fixture on the College’s campus and his lack of presence this school year has been dramatically felt. He was indeed beloved. Now that he is no longer with us, there will always be a void there for all of us who had the honor of knowing him.
Rest in peace Steve, and thank you for sharing with all of us the Love of Christ.
His funeral will be in the Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, 800 W. Chestnut St., Morenci, MI at 1:00pm on February 23rd.
UPDATE: The Memorial Service has been moved to Wednesday, February 24th at 7pm in Hillsdale College’s Searle Center in Hillsdale. (Please enter from the West Street entrance). In lieu of flowers it is suggested you give to the Saga Steve Casai Scholarship Fund which Steve set up before his death.